The 3 Best Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety (Part 1)
I suffered with social anxiety for about 25 years, with symptoms starting at around age 10. In addition, I started developing extreme redness and blushing, sweating and nervous tics. In later years OCD thought patterns and behaviour, and substance abuse and addiction issues started to appear. These all peaked from age 18 to 28.
This issue has taken me to the depths of despair, made me believe I was losing my mind and led me to contemplate suicide on multiple occasions. Now, at age 35, I have been able to overcome these issues and am happier than I ever imagined possible.
Here I would like to share the three most effective ways I have found of eliminating social anxiety.
1. Working Out / Physical Exercise
The first and most crucial step for me was to create a regular exercise regime. This is extremely helpful in combating social anxiety in a number of ways.
Firstly, and most importantly for me, it laid the foundation for a new self image. As my physique developed, so did my confidence. I no longer saw myself as a “skinny loser”.
As Tim Ferriss says, “Inner game is outer game and outer game is inner game”, meaning your mind will affect your body and your physical reality, but your body and physical reality equally affects your mind. For the first time in my life I started to actually like the way I looked and I saw other people noticing it too. I got compliments and people even began to ask me for exercise advice.
On a neurobiological level, regular exercise also releases endorphins, testosterone and dopamine. These powerful hormones and neurotransmitters change your brain chemistry and positively alter your mood. Exercise also lowers stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which reduces anxiety and further increases your feeling of wellbeing.
As a sufferer of social anxiety, I often felt I was going crazy because of the speed of my thoughts and the level of negative chatter in my head. I found that exercise made me exhausted, so I didn’t have the energy reserves to entertain this kind of restless mental chatter. This also meant that I slept far better in the evenings and awoke rested and in a better frame of mind. Again, good sleep is crucial for regulating our hormones, brain chemistry and mood.
Another important point, is that exercise is a “keystone” habit. This means that once this habit is created, it usually has a lot of other positive, “ripple out” effects. As mentioned above, my sleep was improved by regular exercise, but so were many other areas of my life.
Having invested time in the gym, I didn’t want to “undo” my good work by eating junk food. I started to eat far more healthily and became interested in nutrition. I began to pay close attention to how much water I drank and made sure I was well hydrated. I also quit smoking and taking drugs, and drastically reduced my alcohol intake, as these were no longer congruent with my new, developing self image. As well as increasing my sense of control over myself and my life, all of these things also had a very positive effect on me at a chemical level and helped improve my brain function and mood.
2. Therapy (including CBT and exposure therapy)
I have been in therapy on and off since the age of 20 and I’m not ashamed to say that. I found it such a mind-expanding and enlightening process that I am now training to be a psychotherapist myself.
Therapy helped me to understand the complexity of the issue of social anxiety and see it as a symptom of a deeper war and conflict being waged against the self. Why do we interpret being looked at as such a negative and unpleasant experience? Why are we unable to accept ourselves - how we look, how we talk, how we ARE?
Some people revel in the attention of others, whereas for us sufferers of social anxiety it is an excruciating ordeal. We often feel ashamed of and loathe ourselves. Therapy helped me to unpick this complex nexus of ideas and make me realise that social anxiety was just one facet or symptom of a bigger, more complex issue.
Other symptoms and related issues included:
* chronically low self-esteem
* substance abuse
* blushing and redness
* extreme sweating
* psychosomatic illness
* self consciousness
* addictions (to porn, food and computer screens)
All of this made me see social anxiety as a symptom rather than an “illness” in itself. The deeper, underlying issue was my relationship with myself - my lack of self-love and self-esteem.
As I said above, I started to gain more respect and appreciation for myself through working out - I respected my willpower and discipline to get in shape and began to like my physical appearance. But deeper work had to be done using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques and talking therapy to challenge my old negative belief patterns about myself.
I learned to focus on areas of myself that I liked or that were positive, no matter how small or seemingly ridiculous - the arch of my eyebrow, the shape of my forearms, my sense of humour. I started to dissect and question blanket statements I had previously made about myself - “I’m a *****ing loser”...
“Really? There must be some area where you’ve had a victory or success, no matter how small”...
I learned to be more critical and nuanced in my thinking.
I also found exposure exercises a very helpful part of my therapy. I have been to several therapists over the decades I have been battling social anxiety - some very good, many very poor. But it was with one of the worst therapists that I did some of the best work.
I was at a particularly low ebb and told the therapist I was too uncomfortable to go into a supermarket or walk in public - I didn’t know how I should let my arms swing and couldn’t do anything naturally as I felt scrutinised everywhere I went. His response was to expose me to these fears and take me on two of the most surreal, but helpful therapy sessions of my life. In one session I walked around town, while he followed and observed from a distance, occasionally shouting advice like a sports coach on the touchline - “keep your head up … meet their gaze ...don’t stoop!”.
It was bizarre, hilarious and liberating. I couldn’t believe how few *****s this guy gave!
In another session, in order to tackle of my phobia of the supermarket, we went to the local Tesco and just stood opposite each other in the toothpaste aisle - just standing and looking ahead, not talking to one another. People came and went, and rather than my head imploding or the sky falling in, no one batted an eyelid at us. Finally, an old lady came down the aisle and just start chatting away merrily to me. I chatted with her for a while and she left. I looked across the aisle at the therapist and he said with a serene, Zen monk-like smile, “It’s amazing what happens when you are just standing around isn’t it?”.
And he was right, it was amazing.
Exposure therapy forces you to face your fears and demons head on. It allows you to stick a pin in them and discover they are just phantoms of your mind filled with nothing but hot air.
As social anxiety sufferers we are held hostage by our preoccupation with other people’s opinions of us. Through exercises such as those above you learn firsthand that no one gives a ***** about what you are doing! They have far too much going on in their own heads with their own insecurities about their appearance, the argument they just had with their spouse, and the credit card payment they just missed.
3. Developing Success Habits
As I mentioned above, a regular exercise routine helped me develop positive health habits, such as good sleep hygiene, eating healthily and being well hydrated. But it also spurred me on to develop a lot of success habits. I did an audit of bad habits I had that were frustrating me and started to address them.
Some of the positive habits that I started to develop included:
* Finishing things that I started
* Taking care of things before they piled up and got out of control - washing up, tax returns, clothes
* Not leaving things to the last minute
* Not procrastinating
* Daily meditation
* Planning my day the night before
* Generally becoming more organised
* Cutting out Facebook and other distractions to improve focus and productivity
* Cutting out internet porn
These all gave me a much better outlook on life. I had my sh*t together and felt powerful, determined and proactive, whereas before I had felt weak and passive.